New York City was a different place in 1986 than it is today. There were a record 1,582 murders that year in the Big Apple, according to the NYPD, but the whole city was focused on taking the bite out of just one.
During the morning hours of Aug. 26, 1986, detectives from the NYPD arrived to Central Park to find the grizzly scene of an 18-year-old woman with her clothing around her neck and cuts and bruises all over her body. Her skirt was raised above her waist, and her underwear lay 50 yards from the scene.
Jennifer Levin, a soon-to-be-college student, had been killed.
A Fateful Meeting
Robert Chambers grew up in Manhattan with his Irish mother, who immigrated to the country before she had her son. She worked hard as a nurse to give him the very best. His father worked at MCA Records.
Chambers attended the best prep schools as a child, had the best clothes and was a regular during Sunday mass at his Catholic church where he was an alter boy. Chambers was even rumored to have had play dates with John F. Kennedy Jr. when they were both children.
As much as his mother wanted the best for him, he only got as much of a privileged life as her paycheck allowed. Chambers was labeled as antisocial and had a hard time fitting in with his fellow classmates at dignified places of academia.
In the summer of 1986, he met Jennifer Levin at his favorite watering hole, Dorrian’s Red Hand, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Levin grew up middle class in Long Island. She moved to Manhattan with her father before heading off to a Boston junior college.
“Crime was rampant. I used to go to homicide scenes as an assistant district attorney, and I could go to three a night and I wouldn’t have to even report them to the press office because there was so many that they weren’t press worthy. Maybe that sets the tone for what it was like,” Chambers’ former attorney Roger Stavis told InsideEdition.com in 2018.
At 4:30 a.m., the couple left the bar and went to Central Park, where one life ended and another changed forever. Two hours after they left the bar, Levin’s lifeless body was found by a cyclist in the park.
Following an investigation, Chambers was picked up by police and questioned. He had scratch marks on his face, which he claimed he got from his cat. He said he was raped by Levin. However, eventually his story changed and he explained that her death was an accident and that the couple had rough sex.
Just about 24 hours after she was found dead, he was arraigned on a murder charge.
“The Robert Chambers case came into the firm about a week after I started,” Stavis recalled. “He tried not telling the truth, and he ultimately did tell the truth. It then became the job of his defense attorneys to prove the truth of the final statement that he gave.”
“He had scratch marks on his face, and when he was in police custody for a very long time, hours and hours and hours, that was a subject of the questioning by Detective Mike Sheehan, who was the lead detective in the case,” he recalled.
“The first day I met him in recounting what happened, he said that he sat on the wall and watched the ambulances in the police and I was incredulous,” he said. “I was in shock. And so that’s why you sit there instead…if you’re not in shock, you’re going to get the hell out of there and you’re going to get on a train or a plane or an anything. To sit there, it reflects, and I always thought from day one, it reflected that this was not an intentional murder and this was a young man confronting bizarre circumstances and at a loss for how to act or what to do.”
The Trial of the Decade — and the Court of Public Opinion
In the fall of 1987, the case went to trial, but not before a difficult jury selection. Because the story was everywhere and Chambers had become a tabloid sensation, it became hard to find jurors who hadn’t developed their own opinion of the “Preppy Killer.”
“The first prospective juror was a young woman, and the judge … asked the young woman if she has any impressions … about Robert Chambers. She said, ‘He’s much better looking in person.’ She was excused,” Stavis recalled.
Controversial prosecutor Linda Fairstein,who would go on to prosecute the “Central Park Five” case, said during the trial, “In more than 8,000 cases of reported assaults in the last 10 years, this is the first in which a male reported being sexually assaulted by a female.”
In the home video, Chambers is seen playing with a Barbie doll and holding it to the camera. He says in a voice imitating a woman, “My name is… Oops! I think I killed it,” as he broke the head off the doll’s neck. In the video, he was also seen making choking and gagging gestures to four women dressed in lingerie.
“My immediate reaction was it had nothing to do whatsoever with the death of Jennifer Levin. It had nothing to do with her death. It was him acting silly with a bunch of girls. … I watched it when it first came out and my reaction was, ‘Nothing to see here,’” he said.
However, he wasn’t out of prison for too long. In 2008, he was arrested for selling drugs out of his New York City apartment. He was sentenced to 19 years in jail. His earliest release date is January 2024.
“It’s just pathetic. After all that, you just wasted your life,” Stavis said of his former client’s rearrest.
Stavis said he has not kept in touch with his former client, saying, “I haven’t seen him for a long time. I did get letters and cards and things from him and I would exchange letters and cards, but that hasn’t been for quite some time.”
“I guess it’s a story that encapsulates a lot of things that were going on in New York at the time. So you could say New York Mets win the World Series with Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. Ed Koch, Robert Chambers. It’s just part of the zeitgeist, if you will, of the 1980s,” Stavis said. “Some of the corruption cases, the Parking Violations Bureau cases, Donald Trump. Whatever happened to him? But if you put it all together those are quintessential New York in the mid-1980s.”
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